In the magnificent painting Phaeton, artist Gustave Moreau has created a stunning image of a mythological story. As the title suggests, the tale being shown is of Phaeton (or Phaethon, as it is also spelled). In Greek mythology, Phaeton was the son of Helios (Helios was the personification of the Sun). According to the legend, Helios, in a moment of grandiose generosity, offered to give his son anything the boy might desire. And Phaeton, being an impetuous youth, immediately replied that he most wanted to drive the chariot of the Sun god across the sky, as his father did daily. Helios instantly understood the folly of this request, but had to agree despite this fact.
Once in the chariot, Phaeton quickly lost control of the mighty horses, and he was soon flying crazily in the sky. The damage caused by the chariot of the sun was devastating. Zeus, ruler of the Greek gods, took immediate steps to stop the carnage, and cast a thunderbolt at the boy.
This is the moment captured in Moreau's painting. The form of Phaeton is a great diagonal gash in the image, as his body falls from the sky. A nimbus of light surrounds Phaeton, indicating the rays of the sun. The chariot plummets as well, with the horses panicking, their legs pawing at the air. Gustave Moreau's Phaeton is a very effective treatment of this myth. It is dramatic and dynamic, and it is also one of the artist's more active paintings.
Robert Goldwater's book introduces us to the some of the artists and concepts involved with the complicated but fascinating art movement known as Symbolism. In chapters with such provocative titles as "Suggestion, Mystery, Dream", the author leads us to an understanding of this important 19th century style.